Canada Needs an Actual Safe Sport System

Kate Scallion questions how Canada is implementing a system to protect Canadian athletes from abuse and harassment.

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In early March, I attended a regional Safe Sport Summit (co-hosted by the Coaching Association of Canada and the province of Nova Scotia). The Summit’s focus was the implementation of a system for safe sport in Canada, focusing mainly on the content of a pan-Canadian code of conduct for safe sport.

“Safe sport” covers any form of harassment or abuse in sport, ranging from bullying or verbal abuse to sexualized violence against athletes. It is a current priority for the federal government, which provided more than $200,000 for these summits.

Common themes raised at the Summit were: the need for a safe sport system to be fully independent of sport organizations, and for it to include a reporting mechanism to share information (for example, between provincial sport organizations and school sport organizations). Multiple people expressed concern that someone could be prohibited from working with one organization, but continue working with athletes in a different sport, or even the same sport but at a different club or in a different province.

Photo Credit: Pxhere. Image Description: Running track numbers on an athletic field.

The message seems to be clear: we need an independent system for reporting and investigating allegations of unsafe sport, something that several groups have recommended and advocated for, including the federal Working Group of Gender Equity in Sport.

So what did this session provide as a solution?

Sadly, nothing. The focus, was entirely on gathering input on what a safe sport code should look like. Should it be harmonized across all sports and across Canada? What does it need to include? What are barriers to implementing it?

All of this discussion is great and helpful, but it is somewhat meaningless and doesn’t actually do anything to create a safe sport system. We can have as many codes as we like, but how do they actually help athletes in need? To demonstrate, a code for safe sport in Canada was apparently written and implemented in Canada more than 12 years ago; very few (if any) people in the room were aware of that code. A code without mechanisms to enforce it, such as tools for reporting and investigating allegations, is just empty words.

When asked about what is in place, the organizers were quick to point out that there is now a help line available to all participants in Canadian sport, as well as an investigation unit, both hosted by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada. This sounds good, in theory, but in practice, it is not much good.

The help line, as Marie-Claude Asselin, CEO of the Centre admitted, is “toothless.” It is a place people can call to get information on where to go with their concern, like the police, child protection services, or the national sport organization. It does not initiate investigations or reports. It merely tells the caller who they should be contacting.

The investigation unit is not much better. The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre itself is an independent unit, but the investigation unit, as far as I can tell, is not quite as independent as it should be. National sport organizations (e.g. Basketball Canada) request the investigation. They pay for the investigation. The report from the investigation goes back to the national organization. While an independent body conducts the investigation, it is not actually independent of the organization making the request if the organization is the one calling for it, paying for it, and controlling the finished product.

There are other problems with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre investigation unit as well: it is not accessible to everyone. While provincial or other sport organizations may use it, they are not guaranteed to pay the same rate as national organizations, therefore the unknown cost may deter its use. And, presumably, the report would go back to the organization requesting the investigation. Furthermore, there is no reporting mechanism whereby information can be collected and shared.

The federal government has committed $30 million to improving gender equity in sport; some of that funding is dedicated to establishing safe sport in Canada. But at the moment, all that money is only being used for more of the same: an ineffective code, a lot of hyperbole around the benefits of safe sport and its importance, but no actual concrete actions on the ground in terms of building an independent system for reporting and investigating allegations of abuse or harassment. This is not what athletes or other sports stakeholders want; it is not what they need, and it certainly will not do anything to prevent predators like Bertrand Charest, Graham James, or Larry Nasser from victimizing athletes.

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Kate Scallion is an LLM Candidate at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University. @K8Scallion